I've decided to open this week's column by telling a story I've told before – not because I've run out of ideas (I have at least five of those left, and so what if they're all mediocre?), and not because the story's especially interesting (it's not), but because the story recently got bigger, and I want to refresh our collective memory.
During my freshman year at St. Lawrence University, in what I called "an attempt to determine my interests without letting unconscious biases influence my choices" – but what was really my distaste for making informed decisions – I registered for classes by closing my eyes, opening the course catalog at random, and pointing.
As a result, I wound up in a class called "Early East Asian Civilization." As I said the first time I told this story, I considered "early civilization (East Asian or otherwise) a real snore fest" – so it should come as no surprise that I spent roughly every moment of class trying not to fall asleep. And, thanks to the several liters of Jolt Cola I guzzled each day, I almost always succeeded.
In fact, I can only recall failing to stay awake once – but that one failure was what we in the failure business call a "doozy." See, the professor – who I'll call Dr. History, not because she was a time-traveling educational superhero, but because I enjoy reducing people I regard as bit players in the epic movie of my life to single, easy-to-remember details – was looking at me when I slipped into slumber.
I realized I'd been caught during the last millisecond of consciousness, and my eyes shot open instantly. Dr. History was still looking at me, only now she was frowning. She asked if I'd fallen asleep.
I said I certainly had not. Rather, I claimed, my contacts had dried out. "I just blinked for an extra long time to moisten them," I said, not sure if my obvious lie made sense in scientific terms, but hoping Dr. History knew as little about science as I did. She apparently did – or perhaps, regarding me as a non-entity, she just didn't feel like pursuing the matter further – because she said "okay," gave me a tight-lipped smile, and resumed her lecture.
Dr. History never mentioned the incident again and, as I never took another history class, I only saw her in passing a few times before I graduated. We never acknowledged each other, and I figured she'd forgotten me. I more or less forgot her, too. Sure, I occasionally looked back and chuckled at my youthful foible – what a rascal I'd been! – but I never gave much thought to the fact that Dr. History continued to exist outside my memory of that one moment.
Then, last week, while waiting tables during the lunch shift at a local eatery, I looked up from taking an order to see Dr. History being seated a few tables away. I maintained my outward cool, but my mental emergency alarm began bleating like a sheep on speed.
My God, I thought, she never forgot. She kept her rage bottled up, and now she's finally snapped; she means to kill me.
How else to interpret Dr. History's sudden appearance? For one, I didn't usually work the lunch shift – I was filling in for a coworker. For two, why was Dr. History eating lunch at a restaurant in Saranac Lake, a good 75 miles from St. Lawrence, by herself? For three, what was she hiding in that rolled-up newspaper she'd pulled from her coat? A firearm? A dagger? A firearm glued to a dagger?
Dr. History was (of course) sitting in my section, and I approached her table grinning like a clown on speed. I decided I would act as if I didn't know her – if she wanted to call me on my ancient indiscretion, I wouldn't give her an opening. I greeted her, and she smiled and nodded, giving no indication that she recognized me. And, anti-climactically enough, the rest of our encounter proceeded just as uneventfully. Sure, I flinched when Dr. History opened her newspaper, but it turned out to be just a newspaper, not a cache of deadly weapons.
And while Dr. History's failure to attack me was a relief, I also found it oddly disappointing. I kind of liked the idea that my behavior had slowly driven her mad, and that she'd seen fit to hunt me down and assassinate me in spectacular fashion. That Dr. History's reappearance in my life was likely the result of pure chance only confirmed my status as a non-entity – a forgettable bit player in what Dr. History surely considered the epic movie of her own life.
Dan Leonidas makes shallow observations. He can be reached at email@example.com or myspace.com/lastminuteconcerns.